One of the places we visited while living in Ireland was the Museum of Decorative Arts and History. My husband loves mid-century design and is particularly enamored with the Irish designer Eileen Gray. We ended up spending much of our time in the Eileen Gray exhibit chatting with the very friendly docent. She told us that Gray’s house on the Cote D’Azur, E-1027, had recently been opened to the public. So we decided a long weekend in the south of France would be our next trip.
I recently read about the renovation and reopening of E-1027, which reminded me of that past trip. While I wouldn’t recommend flying off to France just to see Gray’s villa, if you are planning a vacation to the Cote D’Azur you should definitely add E-1027 to your itinerary.
You have several wonderful options of where to stay for your visit. Since we’d been to Nice once before, and lodging in nearby Monaco is pricey, we opted to go further south to the seaside village of Menton. Menton is the last village before you hit the Italian border, and has great weather year round. We booked a room at the Best Western Hotel Prince De Galles, with a fabulous location right on the promenade and an easy walk to the city center. After a short flight to Nice, we were able to take a train from the airport directly to the Carnoles station and walk to our hotel – no car required.
Menton was very popular with British tourists in the 1800’s and still exudes tons of belle-epoch charm. Today it’s not as popular as other Cote D’Azur towns, and in late September when we visited there were no crowds at all. That was both a blessing and a curse since many of the tourist shops and seaside restaurants had closed for the season. Still, we had a fabulously fun day exploring the town, admiring the architecture and lush gardens. If you’re a fan of Jean Cocteau (and come on, who doesn’t love an avant-garde gay opium addict) be sure to visit The Bastion and the Marriage Chapel to admire his work.
After exploring Menton it was time for us to see what we came for, Cap Moderne. This cultural landmark site includes Eileen Gray’s E-1027, Le Corbusier’s Cabanon, and the restaurant Etoile De Mer. There are only two tours per day, advance reservations are required, and the group size is kept to no more than twelve which made for a more intimate visit. We hopped on the train in Menton and jumped off at the next stop, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, where we made the very short walk to the Cap Moderne Visitors Center.
The tour started with E-1027. Gray was 48 when she started designing the villa, and by then she was already a well known furniture designer. She lived on site for a year before starting to build so that she could orient the house perfectly to take advantage of the view. Gray built the house herself, with help from local workers, between 1926 and 1929. She also designed the furniture for the house, much of it built-in or of multi-functional use to more efficiently utilize the small space. Walking around the house I fell in love with many of the pieces, and none more than the brightly colored modernist rugs that I wanted to take home with me.
Gray was bi-sexual and had many lovers over her lifetime. At the time the villa was built she was in a relationship with the Romanian architect Jean Badovici; the letter and numbers E-1027 are code for their names (E for Eileen, 10 and 2 as Badovici’s initials numerically in the alphabet, and 7 for G’s spot. Symbolically as if Eileen Gray was embracing Jean Badovici). By 1932 their relationship had grown sour and Gray moved out, building a new home in nearby Menton. Over the ensuing years Badovici invited his friend Le Corbusier to visit. While a guest at the villa between 1938-39, out of jealousy or admiration, Le Corbusier began painting a series of murals on the plain white walls (usually painting in the nude). Gray hated the murals and was outraged, calling it an act of vandalism.
Our tour guide told us there was great debate while restoring the villa as to whether the murals should be kept or removed. Purists say that the murals are detrimental to Gray’s vision, which I understand. It seems people either love the murals or hate them, and I fall into the camp of loving them. They’re significant pieces or art and an integral part of the home’s history.
After exploring E-1027 we moved on to Le Corbusier’s Cabanon and Etoile De Mar. Le Corbusier always dreamed of having his own coastal retreat. During his stay at E-1027 he became good friends with Robert Rebutato, the owner of Etoile De Mar, the cafe next door where Le Corbusier ate most of his meals. In 1951 Rebutato agreed to the construction of a small dwelling adjacent to the cafe, so together they built the Cabanon. It’s a beautiful example of simplicity and compactness, everything in basically one square cell. Le Corbusier was able to live in it every summer until his death in 1965 mainly by eating all his meals at Etoile De Mar and doing much of his work either outside or in an adjacent workshop.
Our final day was spent shopping in Nice, a beautiful city and worthy of several days of exploration. I love the Cote D’Azur and hope to visit again someday. E-1027 reopened in late 2021 after being restored back to its 1929 state. Reading the articles online, haven’t been able to figure out where Le Corbusier’s murals ended up; one article gave me the impression they were moved to the neighboring camping huts while another implied there were screens to block the murals from direct view within the house. I guess I need another trip to Roqubrune-Cap-Martin to find out!